walter-harvey_web.jpgMIAMI — Walter Harvey, a Harvard-educated lawyer with strong local ties, was selected this week as the next Miami-Dade School Board attorney.

School board members chose Harvey, 44, of Miami Shores, by a vote of five to zero after three supporters of Harvey’s opponent, Robert Tischenkel, left the dais before the vote was cast.
Board members Ana Rivas Logan, Wilbert “Tee” Holloway,  Solomon Stinson, Martin Karp and Renier Diaz de la Portilla voted for Harvey, who was the only finalist nominated for the Wednesday, June 17 vote.

Board members Marta Perez, Perla Tabares Hantman and Agustin J. Barrera, who voted for Harvey’s opponent on May 20, did not cast votes at Wednesday’s meeting. They left the dais before the vote.

Harvey said he celebrated his new position by going out with a group of friends.

“I’m honored and humbled,” he told The South Florida Times.

Harvey attended the meeting.  He preferred not to comment on the three board members who left the dais without voting.

He said the process that led to his selection was a thorough one that was transparent and highly competitive.

“There was a series of meetings that were held. They were all open and held in the sunshine.  The board made a decision today to select an attorney to fill a position that had been open for almost a year. The school year is starting very soon. It appears to me that they wanted to get someone in place before the school year starts. It’s obviously a critical position,” said the married father of a three-year-old son.

Harvey and former Key West City Attorney Robert Tischenkel received four votes each at the May 20 school board meeting. Because Diaz de la Portilla was also employed at GrayRobinson, P.A., where Harvey is a shareholder, he recused himself from the vote to avoid a potential conflict. The earlier vote left the school board without a decision on the attorney.

Since that vote, Diaz de la Portilla has resigned from the law firm. He also sought and received an opinion from the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding the perceived conflict. The commission determined during a public meeting on June 12 that there was no conflict, and published its decision on June 17.

Perez, one of the four members who supported Tischenkel, accused Diaz de la Portilla of playing politics.

“A board member quits his job in order to vote for this. How badly do we have to have the vote right now? Where is the transparency?” Perez angrily asked.

“This is so blatantly wrong and political and such processes have been criticized by the maker of this motion,” she said, referring again to Diaz de la Portilla, before calling the selection of Harvey a tragedy for the district.

Acting board attorney Luis Garcia said the board had the authority to rescind its own May 20 decision to restart the search for the board attorney’s position. That vote placed Harvey and Tischenkel on a “hot list,” a decision that Barrera called useless because of the impasse.

Barrera was one of three board members who left the dais before Tuesday’s nomination and vote for Harvey. Perez and Hantman also left. They joined board member Lawrence Feldman in voting for Tischenkel at the May 20 meeting.

Feldman did not attend the June 17 meeting,

Despite Hantman’s assertion that no change in circumstances had occurred since the May 20 vote, Garcia stated that the ethics commission’s ruling on Diaz de la Portilla’s perceived conflict did indeed constitute a change of circumstances. 

Logan agreed.

“The only reason that I voted that we go back out was because we deadlocked and I think we went several rounds deadlocking. Mr. Diaz de la Portilla recused himself from voting over an abundance of caution and now that is no longer necessary,” Logan said in defense of her decision to support the motion that allowed the board to decide between Harvey, Tischenkel and Michael Hunt, the third finalist, instead of beginning a new search.

After that motion passed, the board voted 5-0 to select Harvey as its new attorney.

Before moving on to the next agenda item, Diaz de la Portilla responded to Perez’s allegations.

“My integrity was put in question by one of my colleagues,” he said after requesting a point of personal privilege.

“I know that a word like scandal was used. I don’t know what’s scandalous about this. We had a process that took four months where 52 different applicants applied and we debated in committee and then to had the opportunity to debate it last month,” he said.

He also stood up for his former colleague and the board’s new attorney.

Harvey started his career in the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s office as an assistant county attorney.  After honing his skills in the courtroom, he went into private practice, working his way up to partner at the prestigious Steel, Hector & Davis law firm. He was later hired at the powerhouse GrayRobinson, P.A., where he is a shareholder.

“Harvey, who I happen to know is a person of integrity, a person who will decide issues and analyze issues based on their merits and will not side with anybody and will not do anything that is unethical or to impugn his integrity or that of his profession,” Diaz de la Portilla said at Wednesday’s meeting.

“He is a Harvard Law graduate. He has an impeccable resume. I think we should be proud that in this community, we get a homegrown talent, a person who has spent years in this community, worked in the county attorney’s office, and has given so much, on education issues by the way, on children’s issues, as counsel for the Early Learning Coalition, for example. I think we should be proud that he is our current school board attorney, our acting school board attorney from this moment on,” Diaz de la Portilla added.

Harvey, who is expected to earn around $190,000 annually, said he plans to negotiate his contract with the board so that it can be presented for the board’s approval at a meeting in July.

Photo: Walter Harvey